Predictably, Jeremy Corbyn used his first appearance at (what proved to be a very boring) PMQs to invite the Prime Minister’s comments on housing, and the lack of progress in delivering the 250,000 new homes annually which are supposedly needed to address the two million homes shortage.
Before the election, 40 umbrella bodies in the housing sector called for a new government to draw up a 10-year plan to solve the ‘crisis’. In a refreshing departure from public sector bureaucracy, the Housing Minister, Brandon Lewis, stated that he wasn’t convinced that it would achieve anything: ‘Lots of papers and documents are interesting, but my job is to make sure that we get the framework right and that homes are being built, rather than spending too much time talking and writing about it.’
He hopes that by the end of this parliament at least one million more new homes will be delivered, emphasising that ‘the key is delivering the right homes in the right place for the right people.’ This means having the right jobs for the right people; a challenge for councils and LEPs which fail to take a proactive approach.
At the same time, acknowledging the growth in private renting over the last decade to 4.4 million, the Minister wants more institutions, including pension funds, to invest in the sector, using his £3.5 billion housing guarantee scheme which has already confirmed contracts for 13,000 properties. He is clearly focused on broadening the offer to support home ownership, with a range of measures, including extending the right to buy to 1.3 million housing association tenants, saying ‘nothing moves social mobility quite like it.’ And he is committed to 200,000 starter homes offered at 20 per cent discounts for the under-40 first time buyer; an attractive proposition outside London.
Garden cities are firmly in his sights, with several under way and discussions with other local authorities across the country to deliver between 5,000 and 20,000 homes. And brownfield, rather than greenfield sites, are being targeted, largely complementing neighbourhood plans. Action on brownfield is long overdue, as High Streets shrivel when more town centre housing would bring about a revival in the retail/leisure offer.
However, the sclerotic planning process, exacerbated by local resistance (which could surely be moderated with better communication, greater flexibility on design/density and more co-operative solutions to infrastructure) is a huge obstacle according to the Home Builders Federation, especially given the lack of expertise following council cuts. As a former council leader, himself, the Minister has no sympathy, ‘good planning fuels job growth and housing. Councils should be investing in it.’ And council leaders should actively work with developers to achieve the best for their residents; provided such engagement is transparent, it cannot be prejudicial.
Time is not on our side, as Greg Fitzgerald, the outspoken Chairman of Galliford Try, admits that the construction industry has only just come out of recession, with a healthy upswing expected to take us through to 2020. But, he says the target of 250,000 new homes a year is ‘an interesting challenge, and will only be met if the sector embraces prefabrication and the government provides more sites for affordable housing.’
He suggests that ‘all government land should be turned on its head and, although they will get a smaller receipt, they should actually make the majority of the schemes affordable. Rather than 80-20 in favour of private, why not make it 80-20 in favour of affordable? That’s where the big shortage is.’ Now there’s an idea – perhaps a higher proportion of shared ownership, if only mortgage companies would embrace the scheme?
The industry is still, however, reliant on Eastern European bricklayers and scaffolders to ease growing construction costs; there is insufficient focus on the skills shortage, and, as has been said so often before, this needs to be addressed urgently by encouraging more young people (and surely those in their 30s and 40s who’d like to retrain) to take up apprenticeships. At a purely domestic level, there is a shortage of good, reliable, local builders, decorators, plumbers, electricians and those ‘odd job’ men we all used to rely on. These are valuable lifetime skills, preferable to a useless ‘media’ degree, and attractive to women, as well as men, enabling them to be self-employed to accommodate any care responsibilities. Women on building sites apparently have a very positive impact on work ethic, avoiding distractions and being meticulous in delivering the job in hand.
According to a report by Countrywide ‘Tonic for tomorrow: proposals for a healthier UK property market’, we need to recognise key trends which are drivers of change for the future of housing. The extensive research highlights ‘areas where we believe a policy response or tax change is required to ensure flexibility, fairness and certainty’ into the future.
For example, it points out that household size has been dropping and the number of households increasing over the last 50 years, with single person households doubling between 1961 and 2014, whilst the birth rate rises. City populations have also increased by 10 per cent since 2001, with 47 per cent of 20 and 30-year-olds living in cities, rising to 50 per cent by 2018.
Responding to these trends, the report’s recommendations include:
- A 10-year permitted development right for office to residential conversions;
- Widening retail use classes, enabling faster conversion from retail to leisure;
- Reforming council tax with an additional band at the top of the scale;
- Stability and transparency for landlords and tenants, with standard tenancy contracts of 6 months, 1 year and 3 years with rent uplifts built into longer contracts;
- Simplify shared ownership.
Finally, there is overwhelming evidence that ‘empty nesting’ is being delayed, as children stay at home for longer, but also because there is insufficient new housing to attract the middle-aged and older homeowners wanting to downsize. A further restriction on market turnover, it means that many families are now extending their two and three bedroom homes (if they can find a builder) to accommodate changing needs, instead of moving. This can’t be sustained indefinitely; as any estate agent will tell you, ‘churn’ is essential to a dynamic market and volume restricts price rises.
However, Brandon Lewis rightly won’t be stepping in to encourage more new homes for this group (which could apparently release 3.4 million family homes, as well as release cash into the economy): ‘It’s up to the developers to tempt these cash-rich buyers with aspirational homes to right-size to.’ And there are enough examples in the US and in Continental holiday resorts to offer inspiration for architects and developers.
Older age groups want to enjoy their retirement, whatever their age, with opportunities to socialise with neighbours, play golf, swim and keep fit in a safe environment. So for those big properties to be given a new lease of life, it’s time to be creative.
A fresh approach doesn’t just apply to the private sector. Council and housing associations are ignoring the problem of under-occupied family homes, which cost millions in housing benefit, garden maintenance and adaptations, when a downsizing policy, worked out with older residents, would be beneficial to local communities. Think about it – and do something.